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‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

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Watching Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon, 2015)

Mr-Holmes2Mystery surrounds the circumstances of Sherlock Holmes’ retirement to Sussex to keep bees. What prompted it? Conan Doyle, or more properly John H. Watson, never told us, although ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’ and ‘His Last Bow’, both of which occur after Holmes’ retirement, suggest that, if his powers had been waning, he was still able to exercise them well enough to solve such mysteries as came his way. However, there seems to be a minor cottage industry in filling in the gap in Conan Doyle’s record, involving stories about Holmes’ encounters with various would-be apprentices, of the bee-keeping and detecting persuasions. I’ve said before that I’m not that interested in sequels by another hand. They rarely if ever seem to strike the right note, and frankly I’d rather stick with canon. In going to see Mr. Holmes at all, I was breaking my own rules, but well, Ian McKellen … and I admit I was intrigued by the idea of a film based round the idea of a Sherlock Holmes who is struggling with a failing memory, brought about by extreme old age.

The Holmes we see in Mr. Holmes is very different to the one we might be used to. It is 1947, he’s ninety-three, he’s physically frail and walks with a stick. Nonetheless, he has just undertaken a gruelling journey to Japan, in search of a plant called prickly ash, which he has been led to believe will improve his memory, which is apparently also deteriorating. But why is this suddenly of such urgency to Holmes? Is it because he fears the onset of senility, or is it that he cannot accept that his physical strength is waning? Knowing what we do of Holmes, we might even wonder if he is faking it for some reason – ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective’ comes to mind, as do a slew of other stories in which Holmes successfully disguises himself to the point where Watson cannot recognise him – but his housekeeper Mrs Munro’s anxious response to his arrival home, calling in his doctor, and the doctor’s questions serve to suggest that this deterioration is for real.

Gradually, we come to realise that Holmes is struggling desperately to remember the details of his final case, and the reason why he abandoned his detective practice and retired to the country to raise bees. That is, we are dealing with a detective story in which the detective is the mystery he is trying to solve. All the clues are contained within himself if he can but locate them, but that retrieval is proving rather difficult. Taking royal jelly has failed, and so has rereading Watson’s highly embroidered account of the case. Taking prickly ash will fail in turn. Now, Holmes is attempting to jog his memory by writing down the details he does recall. However, it is his conversations with Roger, his housekeeper’s son, who discovered and read the manuscript while Holmes was in Japan, that will prove to be most effective in recalling things.

mr-holmes-movie

As is the way of a Sherlock Holmes story, the detective element of the plot, while not slight, follows a familiar course. A series of events have occurred which point to a very obvious solution, one which Roger, the young and inexperienced Watson analogue, inevitably identifies, while of course, the more experienced Holmes, who has trained himself to look behind the veil of the mundane, will reinterpret the facts to show a different story, in this case precipitating a tragedy. As is also the way with a Sherlock Holmes story, some of the story’s elements tend to the outlandish – in this instance, a glass harmonica appears to be involved in a case of potential murder.

At this point, though, it’s worth considering what has caused Holmes to suddenly become so concerned about solving the ‘Adventure of the Detective’s Lost Memories’. The answer is simple, and perhaps from what we’ve seen by this point, unsurprising: mortality. Holmes’ search for an answer is prompted by the recent death of his brother, Mycroft, and the retrieval of various papers from the Diogenes Club. These include Watson’s accounts of Holmes’ various cases. It is while reading Watson’s account of that final case that Holmes realises that not only is it inaccurate, he can no longer recall what actually happened, although this case brought about such profound changes in his life. Watson is also dead, and we discover that he and Holmes were in fact estranged at the time of Watson’s death. We may reasonably assume that Mrs Hudson is also dead, and probably Lestrade and Gregson too. In other words, Holmes has outlived everyone who once knew him as himself rather than as Sherlock Holmes, the creation of John Watson, and there is no one to whom he can turn for clarification of what happened in the past.

This contrast between Holmes as man and Holmes as detective overshadows the entire film, not least for the audience, knowing that Sherlock Holmes is entirely fictional. True, for his doctor, Holmes is his patient, first and foremost, but he is still Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ relationship with Mrs Munro is more elusive. She is no Mrs Hudson – this is indicated in her indifferent cooking – but while she to some extent protects Holmes from those people who seek his help, she nonetheless also seems to resent him in some way not fully articulated in the film’s opening sequence.

mr holmes ian-mckellen-laura-linneyAs the film proceeds, we can see that she does not enjoy her job, and perhaps does not care to live in the country. She is preoccupied with the thought of finding a job in Portsmouth, and almost the only time we see her looking bright and alert is when she returns from a trip to Portsmouth for an interview. Also, she is unhappy about Holmes’ growing influence over her son, particularly once he takes Roger on as apprentice beekeeper. At the heart of her resentment, perhaps, is the issue of memory. Mrs Munro is a war widow; her husband was a pilot who seems to have died early in the war. Although Mrs Munro can tell Roger stories about his father – most significantly, stories about how Mr Munro would tell stories from Roger’s suggestions, always including Roger – Roger cannot offer her spontaneous memories of the man she has lost, because he has none, being too young to have formed any. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Munro fears she will lose her own memories of her husband, because she has no one she can talk to. (In an aside later, we learn that while she has a sister, she and that sister do not get along, so Mrs Munro, like Holmes, is adrift in a world which does not know her for herself.)

As noted, it is the conversations with Roger which mostly seem to spark Holmes’ memories; as he records them, they prompt other recollections, and one might suspect that Holmes is deliberately using Roger’s burgeoning skills as a detective. Gradually, the story unfolds. Mr Lemott married a beautiful young woman, they hoped for children but she experienced serial miscarriages and they were told they should not try for more children. Lemott is determined to accept his fate and look to the future, but in doing so is unable to acknowledge his wife’s grief. He refuses to allow her to erect headstones to their lost children because they weren’t proper babies – the sharp look Mrs Hudson gives him at this point speaks volumes – but is glad when she starts lessons on, of all things, the glass harmonica as this apparently affords her some comfort. When she becomes obsessed with the instrument, he grows concerned and refuses to pay for her lessons. Bills from the teacher prompt him to believe that she is taking lessons in secret, and he cuts off her access to money, as well as following her when she goes out. Holmes quickly establishes that Mrs Lemott is funding someone else’s lessons, because she wants to hear the music. When Lemott follows her to the teacher’s rooms, she seems to disappear on the stairs – Holmes realises that she has used to a concealed door to sit in the garden and listen.

mrholmeswomanholmesfollowsmckellenbenchcostumesFor the contemporary reader, some of what is happening here is only too obvious. Mrs Lemott is perhaps suffering from post-natal depression and is grieving in her own way for her lost children, but this does not fit with Lemott’s understanding of how grief should be enacted. There is more than a passing nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in the way he attempts to effect a cure – that is, to restore what he believes to be normal. Holmes, of course, is drawn by the unusual features of the case, with its faint echoes of ‘The Adventure of the Man With the Twisted Lip’ and other cases of untoward disappearances.

A series of events can be construed as one thing – in this instance, we are invited to suppose that Mrs Lemott is about to murder her husband and run off with her lover – or as something else entirely. Holmes sees that Mrs Lemott is intending to take her own life, while constructing a story for his benefit, in which it would appear that she is planning to murder her husband and run off with her lover. She has engineered a confrontation with Holmes in the hope that he will acknowledge her suffering and offer the sympathy her husband cannot. But as Holmes will admit at the end of the film, having elicited the facts, and seen Mrs Lemott pour away the poison, he failed to understand that this would in no way alleviate her suffering. His emotional detachment leads to his refusal of the overture she has made and he sends her back to her husband; instead, she dies in front of a train not an hour later.

Watson will cast this tragic story as a melodrama in order to protect those involved, and concoct a story of murder via lead poisoning from the glass harmonica itself – which is what I thought was happening at first, before Holmes unravelled a different story. Holmes and Watson will quarrel over Holmes’ apparent inability to get over the death he has caused, thanks to his arrogance and emotional withdrawal (echoing Lemott’s own failure to appreciate his wife’s grief). Holmes, belatedly realising the cost of his insistence on the truth, and his failure to understand Mrs Lemott’s emotional needs, then withdraws from his work as a consulting detective, because he cannot accept the pain the knowledge brings.

We might assume then that Holmes has so far failed to understand also Mrs Munro’s emotional needs as she grieves for her husband and endeavours to move on with her life. Hence, one may envisage her alarm as her son and her employer appear to forge closer ties. As if to emphasise this point, the film turns then to Holmes’ visit to Japan, at the invitation of Mr Umezaki, the man who is to provide him with the prickly ash plant. How they initially made contact with one another is unclear but once in Japan Holmes immediately becomes aware that Umezaki is not, as he claims, a long-time devotee of Holmes’ work on bees. Instead, we learn that when he was young his father went away to Britain, leaving him and his mother, and never returned. Instead, he sent the child Umezaki a copy of A Study in Scarlet and urged the child to take Holmes as his example. Umezaki has, it would seem, brought Holmes to Japan, in order to learn about his father. Except it seems likely that Holmes never met Umezaki senior.

MRHOLMES081436483533The crises in this story are twofold. First, there is Mrs Munro’s determination to move to Portsmouth to work in a hotel, taking Roger with her to also work there. Roger is against the idea, believing that with a proper education he can do much better in the world. This turns out to be much the same argument as his father presented to his mother when he determined to become a pilot rather than remaining a mechanic. Roger it would seem is unwittingly very much his father’s son, but Mrs Munro would rather stifle that ambition in order to keep her son with her, as he is well aware. Roger uses Holmes as a means to force his mother to admit what she has done and then shames her. Holmes insists, as a father might, that Roger must apologise (and we might see here a hint that Holmes is well aware that the act of detection brings with it responsibilities). This is balanced by Holmes later finding Roger lying in the meadow, covered in stings, apparently dead from anaphylactic shock. Holmes acts immediately by calling an ambulance and returning to the stricken boy, but fails to call Mrs Munro, who sees this as the ultimate betrayal: she has lost her husband, and seems likely to lose her son.

Later that evening Holmes finds her attempting to set fire to the hives, believing that the bees have killed her son. Yet, as the audience will already know, perhaps without realising it, Roger is not allergic to bee stings. Holmes realises that Roger has in fact solved a mystery that has been puzzling the beekeepers – why do the bees keep dying? The culprits are wasps, which attacked Roger when he tried to destroy their nest, and he is instead allergic to wasp stings. Having convinced Mrs Munro of this, the two instead destroy the wasps’ nest. Meanwhile, Holmes has come to terms with his failure to save Mrs Lemott and has finally been able to complete his version of the story, helped in part by Roger’s discovery of the missing glove.

As a result of this Holmes is able to admit his failure to Mrs Munro, to express his appreciation to her and ask her to stay as housekeeper. It comes in a perhaps roundabout way, by telling her that he has left everything to her and Roger, the implication being that this has been his plan all along. Roger, of course, survives. But there is another thing that Holmes feels he must do, and that is to write to Mr Umezaki, who has written to him to announce the death of his mother. Here Holmes offers him what is almost certainly an entirely fictional version of what his father was doing in Britain, serving the British government in Malaya. The telling detail in the vignette we see is Holmes advising Mr Umezaki to say nothing to his family. All of this is, we are led to believe, entirely fiction – this is the only time we ever see Holmes work at Watson’s old desk rather than his own – but it is Holmes’ acknowledgement that sometimes a piece of fiction can bring a form of comfort, although we know already that Roger’s attempts to reassure his mother than he does remember his father are not enough.

And it is perhaps significant too that Holmes finally writes his own account of the Lemott affair not in his study but in his bedroom, while confined there as the result of his experiments with prickly ash. It is as though once he is forced to step back a little from the reminders of his life as a detective he can see matters a little more clearly. Indeed, I have my doubts as to whether Holmes’ failing memory is an organic deterioration so much as a selective amnesia – a psychological refusal to remember, now so engrained it has taken him over. It’s significant, perhaps, that it is names he specifically has trouble with. His ability to deduce and analyse seems otherwise unimpaired, even though his physical strength is, unsurprisingly, waning.

By the end of the film everything has changed. Roger is teaching his mother how to care for bees – what will become in due course her bees (it is emphasised several times that it is the queen bee who is in charge, and she is of course the husbandless mother; given both Holmes and Roger at times also protect the hives, this suggests a complication of each of their roles within the film). This signals that Roger does not expect to be at the farmhouse as he grows older, at least for a while, and Holmes of course must inevitably die (the one thing he will never entirely do, of course, despite Conan Doyle’s best endeavours), but indicates too that Mrs Munro is now anchored. As for Holmes, he can mourn his own dead while rejoicing in his own comparative vitality. How close this is to the original novel – A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin – I’ve no idea. Having seen the film, I’m not sure I want to know.

It is a curious film, rather chewier than I initially expected, though it does at times indulge in a little hand-waving. That the film is set post-World War II is sketched by a crashed fighter plane still embedded in a British cornfield, when I’m fairly sure it would have been long since removed. In the same way, Mr Umezaki takes Holmes to what is all too quickly shown to be Hiroshima, and finds the prickly ash growing in the roots of a tree in a forest razed by the blast. I’ve no idea whether this is actually biologically possible but it was perhaps a little too freighted with the symbolic. (I am also tired of films that signal death by headstones no freshly filled graves – they are supposed to settle first, for obvious reasons.) Having said that, I’m prepared to indulge the film slightly when it was so good in so many other ways.

I particularly liked how fractured the film’s structure was, the way it shifted back and forth in time, and from place to place, representing the fragility of memories, and their abrupt resurfacing. The film’s general appearance was gorgeous, particularly the long sequence as Holmes returns to his house in deepest Sussex, and the scene where he and Roger go down to the beach to bathe, the shots both suffused with golden autumnal light, as if to reflect Holmes’ great age. The scenes in Japan, by contrast, are grey, as if to reflect what Japan suffered as a result of the war.

McKellen’s performance as the elderly Holmes is everything you’d expect from an actor of his calibre, warm and terrifying by turns, as he grapples with infirmity and loss of memory. His portrayal of Holmes as a working detective, in his late fifties, early sixties, is nicely done, but he excels as the elderly Holmes – at times a little bewildered by the way his body is giving up on him but still alert, still cognisant of what is going on around him, still able to analyse the signs, solve the mysteries. The scenes between McKellen and Milo Parker as Roger are exquisitely done. We feel often that we are simply eavesdropping on real conversations as they meander around the garden or walk down to the sea. At the same time, Parker turns in an incredibly powerful performance, no more so than in his denunciation of his mother’s expectations of him. The anguish of ‘She wants me to be a boot black’ when he knows he is capable of so much more is heartrending. Laura Linney’s performance as his mother is restrained, which seems appropriate given the grief bottled up in her. Roger Allam as the doctor and Hiroyuki Sanada as Tamiki Umezaki turn in similarly poised performances, with a beautifully over-the-top cameo from Frances de la Tour as Madame Schirmer, the glass harmonica teacher. By contrast, Hattie Morahan’s Mrs Lemott is quite steely.

I was hoping for an interesting film and I definitely got that, more so even than I’d anticipated. Mr. Holmes turns out to be a powerful meditation on memory and ageing, built on a very competent Sherlock Holmes story.MR Holmes 4

Disappointing Minions

Last week we went to see Minions, a film I had been keenly anticipating as I loved Despicable Me 1 and 2, and had been thoroughly enjoying the Official trailers for Minions (1, 2, 3). It would be going way too far to say that I actually hated Minions, because I didn’t (it’s very difficult to actually hate Minions, because they are adorable ), but neither did I love it. There were so many moments when I could have loved it, indeed should have loved it, and yet, each time it failed me. Children, I gather, are enraptured by it, their parents not so much. Me? I was disappointed. Very disappointed.minions

I read an interview with Pierre Coffin in which he talked about striking a balance between entertaining children and entertaining their parents, but I wonder now whose parents he was actually trying to entertain. For example, I thought it was telling that the day we went to see it, the only people who laughed at a lot of the musical references were Paul Kincaid and myself, the grandparent generation, possibly even great-grandparent generation, in an audience of fairly young parents who seemed not to have heard of the Monkees or to get many of the other musical references. For that matter, for those young parents, Queen Elizabeth II has always been an old woman, Spitting Image and the gin-swilling, gun-toting Queen Mum never happened, and the idea of a young Queen Elizabeth karate-chopping her way through an attempt to steal her crown wasn’t so much hilarious as utterly incomprehensible (as was the notion that she ended up as some sort of air hostess). And if I’m correct, and Scarlett and Herb Overkill are loosely (ok, very loosely) modelled on Sonny and Cher, for that audience, Sonny Bono is possibly the man who skied into a tree while Cher is … ok, perhaps they’d get the Cher reference, given her remarkable triumph over age and gravity, but I’m not sure. Richard Nixon? Who he?scarlet overkillWhat struck me most forcefully about the film was the thinness of the narrative structure. It was bursting with great ideas, none of which Coffin and Co. really followed through on. The story was thin to the point of invisibility at times. I’d assumed that the Nelsons, the family that pick up the hitchhiking Minions on their way to Villain Con in Orlando, would play a much greater part in the story than they did (a dreadful waste of Alison Janney and Michael Keaton), particularly as the film got off to such a storming start with that wonderful robbery and chase sequence. Instead, the Nelsons pop up at intervals, more of a running gag than actual participants. I suppose it is impressive that the film-makers could throw away such riches on a running gag, especially when they also had an actual running gag – the fan-man dressed as Scarlett Overkill. I felt similarly about the arrival of the yetis at the Minions’ North Pole base – so much potential there for a comic schism of groups of Minions, each convinced they’d got the best new boss, and yet all of it thrown away casually on a weird Minions travelogue.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I see the film as a series of set-pieces with little to link them. Much of the opening sequence was already familiar from the trailers (boy, did those trailers give away an awful lot) but despite having viewed them many times, they still had the capacity to make me laugh (sadly, the sequence with the upside down pyramid will never not be funny – a piece of me is a child). The car ride with the Nelsons was deliciously well-observed and the romp through the department store and Buckingham Palace were typically enjoyable Minion fare. On the other hand, London as seen by foreigners was tiresomely weird, as usual, and I cannot help feeling the campish newsreaders drinking tea between reading out sentences smacked of threadbare imagination, as though the film’s makers didn’t quite know how to express 1960s London (mini-skirts and bubble cars, gonks and unironic Union Jacks might have been nearer the mark, maybe, to match the tie-dye and long hair of the US). Slightly better was the portrayal of London after dark, all alleyways and Mary Poppins rooftops, with the sudden light and clamour of a bar, and a sense of something altogether more dangerous, though not eventually realised.

nelsonsIn the end, however, we come to an ugly truth. Bluntly, the Minions are nothing without Gru. Before Gru, the Minions are cute but really not that exciting. The Minions have worked their way through history, looking for the perfect boss. They appear to be genetically wired to follow the biggest, baddest villain around at any given moment, and yet they fail constantly to keep hold of their boss. Why might that be? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the response of Mrs Nelson when the car stops and she opens the door, to look down on ‘these adorable little freaks’. While the Nelsons are obviously nowhere near bad enough for the Minions to be interested in them, the sequences with the Nelsons work because the Nelsons actually like the Minions, whereas there is little evidence that any of the other supervillains does. But clearly the Nelsons don’t possess the aura of power that attracts Minions, perhaps because they’re too self-sufficient. Similarly, Scarlett Overkill may like the idea of having minions, but the only person she really has eyes for is Herb (their relationship is, in its way, rather touching – Scarlett’s unhappy childhood is another plot strand vaguely waving but underdeveloped). Herb rather likes the Minions, not least because he has something similarly childlike about him – the sequence in the torture chamber is peculiarly funny, as they all play together – but he is not, in his heart of hearts, a villain, so that’s not going to work.

When I saw the film, as it came to the moment when Scarlett Overkill was making one last bid to steal the crown and was suddenly frozen, along with Herb, a child’s voice rang out from the back of the cinema: ‘Gru!’ even before Young Gru actually appeared on the screen. One very attentive viewer had nailed it totally, and as if by magic the atmosphere in the cinema suddenly changed. Maybe it was because everyone knew they were now in familiar territory, but I wonder too if it’s not because while Gru may be a villain, he is as charming as his Minions, and more particularly he is charming to his Minions. He sees them as individuals and knows their names; not only is he the boss, he is a paterfamilias, though it takes him an entire movie to realise that he wants to be a father. And as we see in Despicable Me 2, the Minions continue to follow him even when he’s not being evil – they’ve spent their lives associating power with evil when, in this instance at least, the power lies in love. It’s always a little difficult to believe in Gru as a villain, perhaps because he never seems especially evil. He may have put morals aside during the course of his work but he seems more than anything afflicted with the sadness of duty rather than actively taking pleasure in what he does. Villainy is a challenge rather than a vocation.Or something.

I’m grossly overreading Minions, of course, but it intrigues me that the last five minutes of the film, as the Minions stream down the road after Gru, are so much more exciting (with the possible exception of the early chase sequence) than anything else that’s happened so far.

Watching A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (film, 2006, Richard Linklater)

Paul March-Russell was showing this to his science-fiction module students, last week, and kindly invited Paul Kincaid and myself to sit in on the session.

The first thing that struck me about the film, apart from its being in rotoscope, and I’ll come back to that shortly, is that the story seems to inhabit very familiar Dickian territory. The film is dominated by paranoia: the paranoia of the individuals, especially those taking drugs, and more especially those taking Substance D; though it is difficult not to feel paranoid anyway when so much of daily life is under scrutiny by the state through cctv and other forms of surveillance.

There is also the paranoia of the state itself, manifest in the way in which the identities of police undercover agents are routinely concealed from one another, supposedly to avoid corruption in investigations. To achieve this, they wear what are called scramble suits; some sort of chameleon camouflage which registers an ever-shifting display of facial and physical features and clothing on the suit’s fabric. ascannerdarkly 4

The scramble suits provide a useful visual metaphor for the fragmentation of society generally, but also of the individual: the inner and the outer selves, and the ways in which they mesh and don’t mesh. Or, alternatively, one might argue that the scramble suit turns the wearer inside out. The uncertainty of daily experience is expressed in the constant churn of fragments of physical appearance. More than once, during the film, we see Bob Arctor, aka Agent Fred, almost crouching inside the tent of his scramble suit, surrounded by but utterly divorced from his external appearance, all this overlaid with an internal monologue which suggests that he is adrift in more ways than one.a-scanner-darkly1

And just in case we might be missing the point here, this disconnection is emphasised by the use of rotoscope, which turns conventional filmed action into something that looks more like animation. Features become blurred and indistinct, roughly sketched, although the physical movement of the characters remains mostly clear. If you like, the whole film is a scramble suit. We know that somewhere inside there are actors portraying characters (and as Paul March-Russell pointed out, it’s a team of actors who have all had their own highly visible problems with drug addiction, as if to lend the work an extra verisimilitude).

(Here I should say I’ve not yet read the novel, so I don’t know how close the film and novel run to one another – though I think it is perhaps indicative that the film’s ending draws on the novel’s afterword.)

The story takes up ideas familiar from other Dick novels – indeed, there are a lot of resonances with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel I know best. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is Agent Fred, an undercover narcotics investigator who is trying to discover who is behind the supply of Substance D. In the course of his work, he has met Donna (Winona Ryder), a drug dealer, and he thinks she may lead him to people higher up the supply chain. Also living in Bob’s rundown home are two other Substance D addicts, Barris (Robert Downey, Jr), frighteningly articulate, spewing out conspiracy theories by the score, and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), barely articulate, almost Barris’s alter-ego. What is also clear is that Arctor himself has become an addict during the course of his investigation.

As the film unfolds, we become aware that for Arctor it is as though there are also two parallel presents, one in which he is living his current life, surrounded by squalor, and the other, in which he has a wife and family. We’re led to suppose that Arctor as drug addict is the real existence – though what is existence? – while the other is a dream. There is though that sense of doubling-up which reminds me of the moment in Androids when Deckard stumbles into the alternative police precinct building, and his yearning for a different life.

There are other similarities, too. During the course of the film we see Agent Fred undergoing a series of tests which reveal that as a result of his addiction to Substance D the two sides of his brain have become uncoupled from one another so he is, in effect, in competition with himself, a doubled personality. (I especially liked the way the two hemispheres of his brain were represented as two testers, talking across one another.) Which of course further throws into question the nature of what we’re watching.

One of the stranger moments comes when Agent Fred is asked to investigate Arctor, whose house has been fitted with covert surveillance devices, though it later turns out that the authorities are really after Barris, and the whole thing is a kind of set-up. a scannerdarkly 3My sense is that becoming an observer of his own life – voyeur as much as surveillance agent – pushes Arctor over some ill-defined boundary. Not long after this he’s removed from the case because of his addiction and inability to do his job, and committed to the care of New-Path, a rehabilitation facility.

As it turns out when Arctor is shipped off to their farm to work, New-Path seems also to be responsible for the production of Substance D, a tricksy little piece of moebius plotting that struck me as very Dickian. But then, it seems that Arctor’s days as a narcotics agent might also not be over, as he secretes a flower in his shoe, to take to his ‘friends’ as evidence, so even at the end we’re still not quite sure whether Arctor ever completely lost himself or is dissembling.a scanner darkly2

I wasn’t too sure about the film when I first started watching it but by the end I found myself wanting to watch it again, because it is so extraordinarily complex, and so visually dense. Even pulling out a few stills to illustrate this, I keep seeing things I missed along the way. I’m curious too to see how the novel and film engage with one another. (Much as I love the ‘look’ of Bladerunner, when it comes to the story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep seems to me to be far more interesting as a narrative.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

I saw this film last Sunday afternoon and my initial response was that it was weird but that I liked it. However, I’d need time to process it. Several days later, it’s still weird, I still like it in some ways, but having had time to think about it, there are things about it that make me uneasy. In many ways it defies categorisation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure whether that’s because it is actually sui generis or simply because it doesn’t really know what it is all about.

On reflection, my unease really began with the aurochs.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

 

I don’t think most people had ever heard the word ‘aurochs.’ So we figured we could make them whatever we wanted to make them.

 

 

This much I do know: aurochs were wild cattle that lived in Europe, Asia and North Africa. The last actually died in 1627, in Poland, apparently. The nearest we have to them now are probably things like the wild cattle of the Camargue (though apparently not the Heck cattlethat were an attempt to backbreed for aurochs characteristics). In other words, as I understand it, aurochs did not have tusks, or snouts, or indeed look like giant pigs with horns. And that’s before we get on to the plausibility of aurochs being frozen alive in the Arctic ice, to be released thousands of years later by global warming, at which point they set off across the US, apparently in search of Hushpuppy, the child at the centre of this film.

Does any of this matter? I think it does, not least in terms of how best to interpret this film. On the one hand, if the viewer accepts the film as emerging from the six-year-old Hushpuppy’s own perspective on, or misunderstanding of, what is going on around her it makes sense that she might imagine an aurochs as something that is a cross between a cow and the piglet grubbing around her own house. On the other, based on the quotation above, one also has a sense of the film-makers playing a little fast and loose with terms and definitions, arguing that it’s ok, that no one will know. Which is, perhaps, to insult one’s viewers, and if they insult one’s intelligence in a relatively small way, what’s to stop them insulting the viewer’s intelligence in other ways as well?

The film centres on the child, Hushpuppy, acted with extraordinary intensity by Quvenzhané Wallis, who fully deserved her Oscar nomination for such an amazing performance. Hushpuppy lives in the bayous of Louisiana with her father, Wink, her mother having long since moved on. Wink’s views on raising a child are, to say the least, unorthodox. Hushpuppy lives along in a caravan mounted on supports of some sort while her father lives across the way in a shack. The caravan seems to be where he lived with her mother and he moved to the shack later to avoid the memories. Hushpuppy lives surrounded by her mother’s things and decorates the surfaces of the caravan with pictures of the woman she can’t remember. Outside there are chickens and dogs and a pig, and of course the forest and the bayou.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)For the observer, Hushpuppy’s life might seem to be harsh – Wink seems to either believe in tough love or else simply doesn’t have a clue as to how to raise a child – yet we might admire her for her apparent self-sufficiency. We are clearly intended to see her as a child of nature, deeply attuned to everything going on around her, alert and attentive to changes in the world, all this manifested in the way she listens to creatures’ heartbeats. She is curious and observant, undoubtedly, for how else does she survive, but this metaphysical presentation of Hushpuppy clearly comes from outside; what Hushpuppy herself thinks, we don’t really know. <

Similarly, one might wonder if she sees the landscape as we, the watchers, do. We’re invited to revel in the gorgeous scenery – and it is exquisitely filmed – as Hushpuppy and Wink travel up and down the bayous in their homemade boat; but for Hushpuppy, this is surely familiar. It’s home and home is not a thing children tend to romanticise, not until they’re adult and away from home. It’s safe, it’s familiar; those are different things.

And what about the neighbours? This is more complicated. The film opens with scenes of people leaving, furniture piled on station wagons and other beat-up vehicles but I couldn’t get a sense of why they were going other than it seemed to be something to do with a general concern with rising water. These were the people who were going to retreat behind the levee, a long snaking concrete barrier, with some sort of refinery behind it, practical but also symbolic of people kept out. Those who remain in the bayou, christened the Bathtub, Wink and Hushpuppy among them, form a close-knit community. Miss Bathsheba attempts to educate the children to fit them for survival in a world that is becoming increasingly threatening and difficult to understand. The adult survive by hunting, fishing, drinking and convincing themselves that come what may they will survive. One might think of them as a ship of fools, beached for now, or looking for a different form of allegory, one might turn to Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’, with its flight from reality which even so contains the seeds of destruction, but neither really fits here.

These people are presented to the observer as drunk and deluded, familiar caricatures of southern country folk, unable to live more than a day at a time. One starts to wonder who or what exactly the “Beasts” of the Southern Wild might be. Equally, one might look at them and see people who know precisely how to survive within the environment in which they’re living, while trying hard to avoid romanticising their situation as living close to nature. But how does Hushpuppy see them? These are the people she’s known all her life. They are as much as anything family to her. She presumably would not see the stereotypical moonshine-drinking country people with which the audience is presented, though we are of course also invited to find them familiar and comforting, what we expect the denizens of the bayous to be. Even their tenderness towards Hushpuppy can then be used to show that they are the salt of the earth. And they are also magical – there is one moment when Wink tells the story of, as he puts it, Hushpuppy’s conception, how he and her mother met and fell in love, how she was so elemental she could walk into the kitchen and the pots would boil without her having to light the hob. It’s wonderfully done and yet there is also that uneasy moment of feeling we’re in some sort of magical realist territory. like water for gumbo. We see the man Wink might have been if things had gone differently, but we also see a life unreasonably idealised.

Hushpuppy’s self-sufficiency is shown when her father inexplicably disappears – for how long we don’t know but we see Hushpuppy making shift for herself in a kind of timeless present – it could be days, it could be hours – until her father suddenly reappears. For the audience, it’s obvious he’s been in hospital – he’s still wearing his hospital gown – but this is something foreign to Hushpuppy. When he refuses to explain what’s going on she appears to wilfully set the caravan on fire before she runs away from him then turns and lands a heavy blow on his chest. As Wink collapses, the film links this to the sudden collapse of an ice shelf in the Arctic, which Hushpuppy seems also to hear. And of course, the storm is coming. I can see a case for Hushpuppy linking the storm and her father’s sudden collapse but the link to the collapsing ice shelf and the coming of the aurochs eludes me, and this again feels like the film-makers forcing the connection, laying down an extra cosmic environmental connection.

Some flee the storm, while others, including Wink’s friends, stay behind. It is obvious that we are to make the connection with Hurricane Katrina and yet I do so with misgivings for this is a sanitised portrayal of the aftermath of a hurricane. In a time of almost instantaneous relay of news and citizen journalism, we know what the aftermath of a hurricane looks like, and we know in intimate detail what the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in particular looked like. Yet, in the bayou, while there was a storm surge and everything is under water, there is barely a dead body, human or animal, in sight. A horse is stranded on an island here, a few chickens are rescued there, and then later a small group of girls huddled together in a shack, but for the most part the devastation consists of the picturesquely elegant subsidence of the waterside shacks. Wink’s boon companions have survived, every one, having spent the storm drunk in the bar, inevitably.

The reunion, though, is touching as is the feasting, the moment of everyone drawn together round the table as the bounty of the bayou is emptied onto the table. And then, in the subsequent days, the adults and children gather together to build a fantastic ark, part house, part greenhouse, a small floating paradise. But the bayou has been poisoned with salt water and to the community the only way to deal with this is to blow the levee and drain the water out. The authorities are finally alerted to the presence of the group and they are forcibly evacuated to some sort of refugee camp, for their own good. This presumably is the nod to the presence of FEMA in Louisiana, with ‘Brownie’ doing ‘a heck of a job’. Looking at the people confined there, we’re invited to see them as animals in cages, out of their natural environment. Miss Bathsheba has already commented that they can’t survive away from the bayou, and there is a truth in this, one might argue, insofar as they follow a very specific way of life, but given its current state, can they now survive there? Yet what is the alternative? Surrender control to people who presume to know what is best for them and die slowly of boredom and inactivity in a sterile environment. To see Hushpuppy gussied up in a smock dress with Peter Pan collar and her hair neatly combed and arranged is to see a child who is almost a parody of herself, the cute little African-American doll that white people could just eat she’s so lovely. But she’s not Hushpuppy.

There is, then a moment of relief as the group makes its break for freedom, stealing a bus, taking Wink with them when he resists, insisting that he cannot be a burden to Hushpuppy if she is to survive. It is of course heartwarming for the viewer to see the group apparently muddling through to the right decision – we’re invited to see their flight as chaos and comedy but I think it is as valid to read it as a desperate action to reclaim agency and control over their lives while they still can, though even then one can also feel the film-makers approving of this alternative reading.

Which brings us finally to the most overtly mythic portion of the film. As Wink lies dying in a wrecked shack, surrounded by his friends, in some sort of bayou pieta, Hushpuppy and the trio of young girls she rescued (and we must note a distinct lack of young boys in this brave new post-flooding world, another issue that is neatly stepped around) set out to swim to the light that they see flashing across the water, oddly reminiscent of the flashing light on Gatsby’s dock. Hushpuppy is, for some unclear reason, convinced her mother is there. We have no idea why the girls go with her though they seem transformed into water nymphs. They are picked up en route by a pontoon ferry boat that suddenly appears out of nowhere and the captain delivers them to the flashing light, which turns out to be a floating bar, the Elysian Fields. This is so far beyond Hushpuppy’s experience the joke is clearly for the watcher; we must accept that this is something external to her viewpoint yet it is so deeply implausible. Here the exhausted girls dance with the women, rocking against them, cuddled, cherished, while Hushpuppy finds herself in the kitchen with a woman whom she fervently believes is her mother yet who seems not to recognise her. Again, we are in the magical realist kitchen as the woman expertly fillets an alligator tail and turns it into fried morsels which Hushpuppy will take away with her.

It’s on the return journey that Hushpuppy and the aurochs finally encounter one another, as they pursue her and her friends across the marshes, back to the shack. We’ve already seen that the aurochs seem to have a sense of community, an awareness of one another’s needs, through a scene where one seems to fall and is helped back to its feet by the rest of the group. Now, as they approach the shack it is as if two communities, both struggling to survive,  meet face to face. And here it seems clear that for the moment the aurochs are ‘real’ in that those taking shelter in the shack can see them. Hushpuppy faces down the leader of the aurochs and we must assume they recognise a kindred spirit when they kneel to her before turning away.

What to make of this sequence? Honestly, I have no idea. Are these Hushpuppy’s fears made flesh in the shape of mysterious creature from the past? Or the fears of her father and his friends for her continued survival? Or are they simply aurochs? I have no idea. It’s a hugely powerful moment in the film and yet there seems to be nothing to be reached in terms of any understanding. Or maybe we are supposed to be simply overwhelmed by the fact of the aurochs, representing raw nature. Really, I have no idea.

Wink dies, as of course he must, it having been heavily foreshadowed all through the film, although for one brief moment I did wonder if the piece of fried alligator, cooked by his former wife, that he eats for Hushpuppy’s sake would be endowed with magical properties. Mercifully for the film, it was not. Wink’s body is sent off in his burning boat by Hushpuppy, as per his request, and for all the world like a Viking funeral, and we are left with … well, with what.

The film’s final shots show a small group of adults and children, Hushpuppy among them, setting out on foot, banners flying, to cross a causeway over which the water is already slopping. We have no idea where they are going, other than into the formless, shapeless allegorical future of the film. It is, as I said at the time, life-affirming, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is intended as such, but with distance I find myself wondering what sort of positive affirmation I can and should take from this film. The indomitability of the human spirit? Yes, of course, but there can be as much of an agenda in pushing this idea as in undermining it.

If we choose to read this as a Hurricane Katrina film, one might as easily read guilt for what was not done as affirmation of what was done. And, as bell hooks points out in an interesting article on the film, ‘No Love in the Wild’ the mythic is slippery. Quoting Maurice Berger, she notes that “Myths provide the elegant deceptions that reinforce our unconscious prejudices. Myths are the white lies that tell us everything is all right, even when it is not,” before going on to observe herself that “Deploying myth and fantasy we are shown a world in Beasts of the Southern Wildwhere black and white poor folks live together in utopian harmony. No race talk, no racial discourse disturbs the peace.” By the same token, I see a form of desperate tough love, hooks sees one more film portrayal of the black man as brutalising force – can I justify my reading? Well, I might, but I’m honestly not sure I should. (The film’s entry on Wikipedia provides a decent summary of the film’s critical reception, for and against.

And this, I suppose, is what I now take away from the film, that the themes, images and ideas contained in it are slippery, much more slippery than the film-makers apparently realise, or at any rate than they are going to let on. It is ok on one level to simply watch the film and let the gorgeousness of the imagery wash over one (and I can’t deny that I tend to uncritically watch film as spectacle in a way I would never read a book) but to accept this film at face value is to buy into a number of very problematic ideas.